To those who’ve been paying attention, this shouldn’t come as a surprise – Thomas Nagel, for example, describes Brooks with wicked ambivalence as a well-known “aficionado of research in the social sciences.” More likely to raise eyebrows is the seeming rapidity with which Brooks has shifted the bulk of his attention to reading, aggregating, and promulgating such research: he’s devoted most of his recent columns (like one today) to it, re-initiated his defunct blog to provide daily recourse for it, and, most significantly, dedicated a recent book to it (of which he broke off a preview in the New Yorker in January, and about which he gave a TED talk that just went live this week).
The book is called The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, and it purports to blend the latest scientific research on human nature – mostly from psychology, but also from neuroscience, evolutionary biology, economics, and so on – with a (fictional) story about two characters, Harold and Erica, whose entire lives play out in the present day.
This plot device serves a number of functions: it allows Brooks to (ostensibly) “leaven” the scientific material, provides him with a narrative arc, and lends specificity to the particular brand of social-commentary-cum-Seinfeld-humor that he usually serves up in abstracted riffs on Whole Foods and Great Danes (see his column, his TED talk, or his previous book, Bobos in Paradise, for examples).
The story behind the story – and Brooks’ major point – is that understanding human nature and its greatest assets (“Love, Character, and Achievement”) means understanding our unconscious – both collective and individual. How? By assimilating studies across a wide swath of social- and natural-scientific disciplines that are, Brooks argues, already coalescing around these questions, forming what he dubs a “New Humanism” (we seem to get one of these a generation!).
Brooks has been tracking this new “paradigm” – his word – since at least 2008, and sees in our “cognitive age” the potential for a revolution in self-understanding on par with the impact of Freud’s work – only, as he said at TED, “more accurate.” It will mean replacing the guiding principles of thinkers from the French Enlightenment with those of their Scottish contemporaries – replacing Cartesian rationalism with Humean empiricism – by turning to the cognitive sciences to correct for the fact that “the conscious mind … gives itself credit for performing all sorts of tasks it doesn’t really control.”
Now, it goes without saying that this impulse is nothing new – Brooks is in many ways just repeating the Enlightenment call for a “Newton of the mind,” and the title of his book is more-or-less lifted from an influential textbook in social psychology, now in its tenth edition. It also ignores the reflexive problem inherent in cognitive justifications for non-cognitivism. Still, Brooks’ ostensible contribution is his fusion of the scientific and the personal, a burgeoning theory laid out in narrative terms (self-consciously) analogous to Rousseau’s Emile.
It should also come as no surprise that he’s been rewarded for these efforts with more than his fair share of ridicule. Blogging biologist (and infamous curmudgeon) PZ Myers has lobbed a grenade over at Salon.com, while the renowned philosopher Thomas Nagel filleted Brooks just as finely (if more skilfully and interestingly) in the latest Sunday Book Review. Both reviewers take the book to task for its composition: “fiction is not Brooks’s métier,” avers Nagel, while Myers puts it a bit more..frankly: “it’s like watching a creepy middle-aged man fuss over his Barbie and Ken dolls,” the upshot of which is “a battle between two clashing fairy tales to see which one would bore us or infuriate us first.”
While both reviewers also take issue with the theory underlying the book, they do so for different reasons. Myers, the scientist, reads it through the lens of Snow’s Two Cultures. As he writes toward the end: “The technicalities don’t illuminate the story in any way, and the story undercuts the science.” Nagel’s critique is different: rather than cite Brooks for failing in his effort to give scientific findings personal meaning, as Myers does, Nagel questions the desire to do so in the first place: “Life, morality and politics are not science,” he concludes, “but their improvement requires thought” – thought, more precisely, about the ends of inquiry and of life.
For the record, I side more with Nagel than with Myers, but I’ll leave their critiques to the readers. What I’m more interested in – and what I hope connects this post to the blog’s themes – is Brooks’ social-scientific turn and what it means. He has turned to results in psychology and elsewhere in part out of a genuine interest in the goings-on of the cognitive sciences, but also (and more significantly) out of a sense of frustration with our moral-social world. This is, to me, an interesting move for a number of reasons. Let me focus on one aspect for now:
Brooks shares his pessimism about the atomistic and narcissistic “way we live now” with the authors of another recent book: Sean Kelly and Hubert Dreyfus’s All Things Shining, a popular-philosophical account of the vacuum of meaning in our secular culture – how we arrived at it, why it’s bad, and how we might climb out of it. (I should note, too, that similar themes are explored in a book I’ve mentioned on this blog before – Dan Rodgers’ Age of Fracture).
Why does this matter? Both Brooks and Kelly/Dreyfus find fault with a supposedly quintessential “individualism” in today’s world. To me, what’s interesting is not their shared diagnosis, but where they turn as they seek to prescribe something for the ailment they’ve uncovered.
After laying out our predicament as they see it, Kelly and Dreyfus provide a roller-coaster ride through the Western canon, from the epics of the Ancient Greeks to David Foster Wallace’s unfinished version of the same, tracing out the decline of the sacred with the rise of introspection and an autonomous sense of the self. It’s a fun read, and by the conclusion, they’ve ended up in a weird place: professional sports. It’s here, they say, that we experience the sacred most often in our secular world, in a collective emotional response they christen with the unfortunate moniker “whooshing up.” March Madness indeed…
Brooks himself had nothing but praise for the book, in part because he sees it as accurately portraying the social reality to which he sees himself as providing the psycho-scientific complement. Now this is interesting: the books seek out a sense of human nature in very different places, one in the likes of Augustine and Melville, the other from Science articles. There’s no neuroscience in All Things Shining (this despite Kelly’s professional interest in it), and The Social Animal has no place for “The White Whale.”
And yet Brooks, at least, sees their projects as complementary (no comment, yet, in the other direction) – both familiarize readers with vast, often imposing literatures from which we might gather up meaning and a sense of community. While Brooks might sell us moderns a bit short (“One of the most cognitively demanding things we do is buy furniture: it’s really hard to imagine a sofa, how it’s going to look in your house.”), and while he still has some answering to do (for Nagel), I’m intrigued by his reaching into the social and cognitive sciences for the problems he – along with others – perceives in society today.